Bo Shafer: Give first, and then raise money

Betsy PickleOur Town Leaders, West Knoxville

Bo Shafer knows a lot about getting people to give.


“I’ve raised a lot of money for practically every organization there is,” he says.

“Before you ask them, you’ve got to tell them that you’ve already given,” says Shafer, who has served twice as United Way chair and has chaired the boards of several other nonprofits in his 85 years.

Bo Shafer

United Way was “the best thing I ever did,” Shafer says. “That’s a big job until you find out the people who are givers and generous.”

He looks for people who give time as well as treasure.

“If they’re a volunteer, I know where their heart is.”

Shafer has lived by his beliefs and roots. The Knoxville native went to first through sixth grade at Staub School, long gone with a University of Tennessee swimming pool in its place. The son of an insurance man, he has handed over the reins of Shafer Insurance to his son, Andy. He got involved with the Kiwanis-sponsored group Key Club as a teenager. His father was a Kiwanian.

Shafer was a charter member of the Key Club at West High School in the school’s first year of existence. He then became a member of the Kiwanis’ Circle K at UT.

Upon graduating, he served in the U.S. Army as a military policeman, and when he returned home he joined Kiwanis. A few years later, he and some other Kiwanians heard about the Big Brothers program and decided to start one in Knoxville.

At first, it was a “skin of our teeth” operation, he says, but they hired Bill Tapp to run the program, and “he got it moving.”

Shafer had the first “little brother” match. He has poured heart and soul into the organization – formally known as Big Brothers Big Sisters of East Tennessee – and will be celebrating Founders Day with the group on Friday, March 25.

An open house from 8:30 a.m. to noon will give current and past Bigs and Littles a chance to catch up with each other and the program at its new offices at 1100 Marion St., Suite 100. The general public is also welcome. BBBS moved from Regas Square to the Shafer Insurance Building in January.

BBBS named its new mentoring center after Shafer.

“They asked me if they could, and I told them that was ridiculous,” he says. “But they said they wanted to.”

He’s a big believer in BBBS.

“Changing a life will last after we’re gone,” he says. “They’ve got 78 children waiting on Big Sisters and Brothers, last time I talked to them. If more people realized how important that is, we’d have a lot more matches.”

In addition to son Andy, Shafer also has a daughter, Heidi Shuler. After his wife of 43 years, Mary, died of cancer, he mustered up the nerve to ask out a widowed friend. He and Jane have been married about 10 years. All of them live in Knoxville, as do his twin sister, Lyn Overholt, and younger siblings Elisabeth Sansom and Martin Shafer.

Twenty years ago, Shafer became president of Kiwanis International, and his duties took him around the world.

“I saw poverty,” he says. “I smelled poverty. The lives we live are almost obscene.”

He says he’s asked the West High Key Club members to name “the biggest blessing you could ever have.” He told them their answers – a car, a house, good health – were all temporary.

“I finally convinced them that when God puts us on the giving side instead of the needing side, that’s the biggest blessing you could possibly hope for. It’s by His grace that we’re able to help people instead of asking for help from other people.

“It’s a blessing to be able to help others. It’s not an obligation, it’s a privilege.”

Shafer likes to share the lessons he’s learned over 85 years.

One of them is “a rule to live by in life: If you don’t want to do it and it’s hard, it’s probably the right thing to do.”

But he doesn’t like to preach. He prefers to flavor his messages with humor.

He says, “I wasn’t a terrible student, but I certainly wasn’t a good one. I got through – that’s the main thing. Some people graduate cum laude and magna cum laude. I say I graduated ‘thank you, Lawdy.’”

Shafer still has an office at Shafer Insurance, but he goes in only when he wants to, mostly to say “howdy.”

“I wore a tie for 45 years. I’ve got two ties now, and they’re on the floor. Tourniquets belong in first-aid kits, not on necks.”

He has several takes on death, some humorous, some spiritual. “Last time I checked, the death rate was 100 percent,” is one. He also says, “I don’t use the word ‘die.’ I use ‘change location.’

“Death is the beginning,” he says. After his first wife died and people said, “‘Sorry you lost your wife,’” he had a comeback. “When you lose somebody, you don’t know where they are. I know exactly where she is.”

His thoughts on how to live a happy life are collected in a book called “We’ve Got It Made,” which was encouraged by Rick Kuhlman and transcribed by Eli Smith.

“I’m not any smarter than anybody, I do have something on a lot of people, and that’s 85 years,” he says.

Betsy Pickle enjoys writing about nonprofits and volunteers for KnoxTNToday.

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